|Forty Days to a Closer Walk With God|
"Forty Days to a Closer Walk With God: The Practice of Centering Prayer," by J. David Muyskens is a must read if you are wanting to learn how to pray or are desiring to draw closer to God. I found the exercises and devotionals thought provoking and helpful.
Having heard of contemplative prayer through my master's program, I started the book with an open mind, but after the first two or three exercises, I started wondering if sitting in silence before God for twenty minutes was worth my time. I mean, other than fighting away thoughts with my "sacred word", nothing was happening.
Nothing. Just silence.
This is, however, what was supposed to be happening. Nothing. Well, on the surface, that is. The beauty of centering prayer, which has been practiced in the church for centuries, is that God works within you quietly. You may not notice changes right away but they will come.
"In practicing Centering Prayer," Muyskens writes, "we rely totally on the grace of God and adopt a stance of receptivity. We do not concentrate or focus our attention; we do nothing except to let go of our thoughts and efforts and consent to God's presence and action. All else is the work of the divine. We simply open ourselves to receive the love of God, given to us by grace...
"Centering Prayer does not require constant use of a mantra or consciousness of breathing or any effort of exerted attention. Letting go of all our efforts, we simply sit with the intention of surrendering to God. We wait with openness, turning to God through the use of our prayer word that expresses our readiness to receive the love of God."
For me, I think the changes came in learning to relax in God's presence not feeling like I needed to do anything except enjoy him. The contemplatives talk about learning to live from the center of your being. Through the regular practice of contemplative prayer, Christ becomes the center and you learn to live based on his wants and desires for you. The person who practices contemplative prayer, in time, will learn not to give into pressure from the world because he or she lives from that calm center - somewhat likened to the eye of the hurricane in my experience. Saying your sacred word, or prayer word, a word that you receive from the Holy Spirit during one of the early exercises, helps center your focus in a gentle manner when your mind wanders. It is also the signal to God that you are ready to receive whatever he has for you. In Centering Prayer, God is the one in control. The one praying does not ask for anything, think about anything or talk. It is an exercise in self-control and devotion to God.
Like I said, I struggled with this method at first and then I read that Musykens had the same difficulty. He wrote, "my efforts to do it well were getting in the way." Once I discovered this "secret", it was easier to clear my thoughts because I was allowing the Lord to push them away. Once I submitted by using my prayer word and stopped struggling, the method made more sense. I also didn't fall asleep as much. Muyskens suggests journaling and in my journal there are blank spots under some dates because I fell into such a deep sleep while trying to center! As a side note, I do my devotional reading at night. I'm not a morning person and getting up early to read or pray just knocks me out. Even though I do fall asleep occasionally during devotions in the evening, it is not as common.
After beginning this practice, I also had terrible dreams but I am not sure if that has anything to do with Centering Prayer. If it does, I believe that it was God's way of cleaning out my mind - a spring cleaning, if you will. They subsided after the first week.
After the Centering Prayer session, Muyskens suggests a scripture and gives journal prompts. This is also an ancient practice in the church called lectio divina, Latin for divine reading.
Lectio divina has gained popularity in churches during the last few years. It can be done in a group or individually. In "Forty Days to a Closer Relationship With God," the lectio divina exercises are individual in nature. Muyskens suggests a verse and then asks the reader to let a word "grab" you. You then meditate on that word and wait for the Holy Spirit to speak either through impressions or thoughts. On some exercises Muyskens ask questions that may stir the thought processes. Readers are asked to journal the answers they receive.
In the back of the book there is a discussion guide for leaders and a list of other books that are helpful in spiritual growth.
I recommend this book highly.